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As did Ronald Reagan 40 years ago, today’s conservative Republicans strive to kill off unions, as if there is something awful about a group of people working together to improve their wages and working conditions.

However, the winds of change are rising, as businesses are finding that many former employees are refusing to return to work. The nation is undergoing a de facto general strike, as writer Jim Hightower termed it, one that might portend a new rise of unionization.

Despite what some conservatives are telling us, a reasoned decision to stay home isn’t because people are lazy or because they are living large on $300 a week in COVID-19 relief cash. An Associated Press analysis found, counterintuitively, that, from May through September, in the 25 states that kept providing the payment, workforces grew slightly more than in the 25 states that cut off the payment as early as June, as West Virginia did.

Certainly, some folks might be content to scale back their spending and get by on one paycheck instead of two. Others might have taken retirement sooner than anticipated, to minimize exposure to the virus. And COVID-19 “long-haulers” might be physically or cognitively unable to return to work.

But the one-two punch of low wages and employers’ tone-deaf responses to workers’ needs has convinced many that, if they do return to the workplace, they will be ready to organize. That might be particularly true for workplaces where COVID-19 concerns are paramount, such as in retail, restaurants, teaching and other face-to-face settings. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers.

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Hightower describes a Burger King in Lincoln, Nebraska, where employees served the owner a whopper-sized portion of the growing national mood. A crew manager and eight of her co-workers gave their two-week notice after futilely pleading for better wages and workplace improvements, like a kitchen with air-conditioning. They altered their store’s sign to read, “We all quit. Sorry for the inconvenience.” Low wages, poor working conditions, and an apparent lack of respect from the owner, had left them feeling they had little to lose.

Hightower points to harbingers of change in the national mood that reach beyond the workplace. He cites Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for Fifteen, the popularity of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. West Virginia may add our recent teacher strikes to the list. (The “stop the steal” and “mask mandates are communism” cries, although loud, are too nutty to make the list.)

Meanwhile, our GOP-led Legislature seems drunk with determination to ignore a tide that might wash away the foundation of its conservative house. Our lawmakers have passed a so-called right-to-work law (that gives nondues-paying “free riders” the benefits that union members won at the bargaining table) and a law that makes it more difficult for public employee unions to collect members’ dues.

As Hightower put it, even the many jobs that once were considered nonunion, such as child care, restaurant work, home health, gig workers and green economy employees now are the focus of unionization efforts. There is a hard lesson that some business owners, and many legislators, have yet to absorb — that the difficulty filling jobs is a symptom of the undercurrents of inequality and wage stagnation.

In exchange for their work, Americans are increasingly demanding livable wages, raises, safety in the workplace, dependable scheduling, promotions, attention to the concerns they raise and respect. The rumble that some among the business elite are hearing, and many of them are ignoring, is coming from inside the house. It is the unmistakable sound of unionization, gaining steam.

Joseph Wyatt is a Gazette-Mail contributing columnist and emeritus professor at Marshall University. Reach him at

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